Missional Planning: Defining Terms

The first post in a multi-part series on Missional Planning.

By Ken Howard

Our last several posts have focused on the principles and practices the comprise Vision-Guided Experimentation (VGE). For our next several posts, we will focus on putting VGE to use in congregations and adjudicatories (e.g., dioceses, districts, synods, etc.) by walking through the steps in developing an effective Missional Plan. But before we get down to the proverbial brass tacks of Missional Plan, perhaps we should define our terms. So what exactly is missional? And what exactly is a missional plan?

What is Missional?

Given that the term “missional” is becoming ubiquitous in ecclesiastical circles these days, you might think that there would be something like universal agreement on what people mean when they use it. You might think that. But you’d be wrong.

Sometimes it seems like there are as many meanings of “missional” as there are people using the term, with different connotations that attach depending on the theopolitical orientation of the persons employing it. There are Christians on both sides of the theopolitical spectrum who approve of the term. There are also those on both ends of the spectrum who are suspicious of it: self-described “liberal” or “progressive” Christians who don’t like it because it sounds “conservative” to them and self-described “conservative” Christians who think it sounds suspiciously “liberal.” For some people, “missional” is interchangeable with “emerging,”  others with “missionary,” others with “evangelical.” Still others describe “missional Churches” as being the opposite of “attractional churches:” a model of evangelism in which every member of the church is an evangelist, going out into the community to bring people to Jesus, rather than waiting for them to show up at the church for the process of evangelism to begin. And while emerging churches, missionary churches, evangelical churches, and community-focused evangelism can be “missional,” the fact that those different strands of ecclesiology transpose those terms demonstrates that “missional” is not equivalent to any of those terms.

Christopher Duraisingh’s article, “From Church-Shaped Mission to Mission-Shaped Church,” is perhaps the most thorough exploration of the meaning of “missional.” Drawing much from Asian evangelical theology, and specifically pointing to Acts 1:8, he argues that rather than thinking of the Church’s missionary calling as an outgrowth of a mission that God has given to the Church, it is more Biblically authentic to think of the missionary calling of the Church as a response: as discerning where God’s Spirit is already at work on God’s mission and then discerning what part of that already-present activity of the Spirit God is calling them to participate in. He and others have called this way of thinking of mission “Concursus Dei” (God working in parallel with humanity). He argues that “missional” actions arise out of our “being in mission, being in a permanent openness to God and in God to the other, and to the world,” and that “everything the church is and does has a missionary dimension to it” or it is not the Church.

Practically speaking, then, I have found it helpful to think of being a “missional” church as about working to develop a divine symbiosis with your community, in which we are present in our neighborhoods as God’s Spirit is already present in our neighborhoods. A missional congregation does not think of the community as a way to meet the needs of the congregation. Nor does it think of itself as a bestower of good upon the community. Instead, it views itself and the community as equal partners in a common cause relationship with the Spirit of God.


What is a Missional Plan?

Having taken the above exploration of the meaning of “missional,” answering the question “What is a Missional Plan?” becomes a lot more straightforward. It all boils down to answering these questions:

  1. Who are our neighbors?
  2. What are our neighbors like?
  3. What issues do our neighbors face?
  4. How is God’s Spirit already at work in our neighborhoods?
  5. How is God calling to us to participate in God’s mission in our community?

The rest is just to decide who will do what and when.

And we will take up that thread in our next post…